Nanking is a film that derives a devastating power from its staid remembrance of humanitys capacity for suffering, its capacity for evil and its capacity for good. It catalogues one of the most horrifying events in the history of the continent. As an overture for the Second World War, the Rape of Nanking was hell on earth. Nanking, the then bustling capital of China, was savagely brutalised by the invading Japanese military force in the summer of 1937. First, the air raids began tearing through the citys economy, destroying the lives of its citizens, leaving them helpless to the inevitable slaughter by the approaching troops. As the citys expatriates and those with money scurried to flee, a foreign contingent made up of the clergy, teachers and professionals stayed behind to protect and aid the destitute.
Directors Bill Guttentag and Bill Sturman pay tribute to those 22 men and women whose courage and kindness enabled them to establish a provisional safety zone that provided refuge for over 200,000 civilians, despite being outnumbered by a belligerent army angered at having the eyes of the world on them. Somewhere between being a cogent docudrama of heroism and a harrowingly powerful documentary of an unfathomable catastrophe, the vivid characterisations of these Americans and Europeans are crafted through the films well-envisioned and excellently staged readings by its weathered performers that include: Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Stephen Dorff and most notably Jurgen Prochnow. The letters and anecdotes of the expatriate saviours that provide the point-by-point narration carries with it a cutting, painful urgency and is delivered with compelling ideas of responsibility and personal anguish by the thespians and various composite characters.
Much of the films haunting intensity comes from its use stock footage to recall the horrors of the past. The seamlessly inducted black and white archival footage of wartime atrocities capture the sorrow and ad hoc sentiments of people long gone, even as their cries and pain linger and reverberate throughout history. It adds to its sentience by summoning the voices and memories of Chinese survivors, their tears and pained expressions leading the way to the films most enduring interviews. When one interviewee recalls how his mother breastfed his infant brother even as she was dying from being bayoneted through the chest, this anecdote ominously carries with it the burden of indescribable truth and inexplicable iniquity and a discovery of unknown depths of madness. Then the interviews with the surviving Japanese soldiers show remorselessness and the descriptions of the matter-of-fact executions and acts of depravity convey a sense that living through the war has changed these men irreparably. The footage and interviews show how the perspectives seen through the eyes of humanity are reconfigured during times of war when sin becomes justified and decency is abandoned.
The shared human consciousness between the foreigners and ravaged citizenry is indelibly considered in Prochnows recital of the German businessman and Nazi sympathiser John Rabes journal entry, a detail from memory made fecund by time: "Shouldn't one make an attempt to help them? There's a question of morality here, and so far I haven't been able to sidestep it."
This pronouncement is a scathing indictment of the denials, and of the deliberate obscuration of truths so oppressive that it is met with ethical and universal repercussions. The preclusions of accountability are present even today, as other parts of the world are mired in invasions, Rabes conundrum is still a relevant inquiry that is responded with an uncomfortable silence.